Heroes, who needs heroes? Well, we do. We always have, it seems. Every culture has mythology, folklore or literature which celebrates the exploits of its heroes. Cinema has always loved them, and we are currently in the age of the comic-book hero.
Right at the top of the hero pile is Captain America, Marvel Comics’ answer to DC Comics’ Superman. Blue, white and red outfit? Check. Superhuman strength? Check. Stunningly idealistic and self-sacrificing? Oh boy, check. Underwear worn on the outside? Thankfully not.
Okay, so the Captain’s also not from another planet, nor can he fly. Even his main weapon, a shield, adds to his role as a defender rather than as a force for offensive aggression. Marvel normally excels at creating such imperfect rogues as Wolverine or Iron Man, but somehow it also managed to create the all-American ‘take him home to meet mom’ super-hero in Captain America.
Considering the potential testosterone on tap, it’s a curious surprise to see how sweet and, well, vulnerable they make him. Prior to becoming the hero, he’s not even just a regular guy. He’s a weedy, short kid with bad asthma who, not surprisingly, has had his ass handed to him on numerous occassions. Lousy with women? Cringe-worthily so. Desperate to fight in World War Two (yes, this is a back story of sorts), he undergoes the kind of scientific treatment – the kind that really only makes sense in movies – which somehow makes him strong, indestructible and handsome. The nice touch though is that he loses none of his inner weedy-kid personality, which adds to his overall charm. The role is filled by Chris Evans who has the rare distinction of having already played a super-hero. He was The Human Torch in 2005’s The Fantastic Four. Whereas there he was the arrogant cocky upstart, in Captain America he manages to play vulnerable and sensitive. Thanks to a dashing 1940’s haircut and his weirdly weedy CGI body the producers manage to banish any potential confusion over seeing the same actor in two comic-book roles.
As much as an action movie can, Captain America hints at what it means to be a hero. When he asks why he was chosen, the scientist replies, ‘Only a weak man truly understands the value of strength.’ In a post-modern twist the government wants a fictional super-hero character to help drive support for their war bonds. Realising that his abilities are real, it is only after seeing the emptiness of the endless fund-raisers he attends that he actually manages to overcome his fears and become the hero his talent suggests. It is unsurprising that the leaders (the modern-day equivalent of the hero) we admire most are those who seek power the least. No wonder Jesus places such importance on a humble spirit or a child-like attitude.
One of a leader’s greatest strengths can be his or her weakness. How a person deals with their weaknesses inspires others. Traditionally, the hero or leader is very much a proxy for our hopes and fears. We want them to make the difficult decisions we don’t know how to make. We want them to take the punishment or failure on our behalf.
Perhaps the lack of perceived heroic qualities in modern leaders makes the bravery of comic super-heroes even more attractive? Is that why comic-book films are so popular? Or perhaps it is because, as an audience, we cannot outgrow the passions of our own childhoods. What is clear, whether in Greek plays, Shakespeare or comic-books, is the desire to be inspired by someone or something much larger and more meaningful than ourselves.
That said, it can’t hurt though that comic books are so easy to adapt for the cinema – each panel is essentially one shot on the cinematographer’s storyboard. The dialogue is kept to a minimum but delivered in short, catchy bursts. In between are healthy amounts of over-the-top violence, sure to keep boredom at bay from the attention deficit disorder-suffering audience. They’re a producer’s dream. Plus they come with a built-in loyal fan base who will probably watch it even if, to use fan boy language, it totally sucks.
The only downside? They drive other films off the screens. I recently tried to take my wife to see Tree of Life, since it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and remarkable films of recent years, only to discover I had the missed the only two days it was showing at my local multiplex. I now have to wait until it shows at a smaller arts cinema. I think large cinemas can show both summer blockbusters as well as art films. I think audiences can concentrate for longer than 10 seconds on dialogue.
Captain America is yet another very enjoyable Marvel character brought to life. Given its World War Two setting, its rollicking action and knowing one-liners, it brings to mind the adventure and Nazis of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as the group dynamics of Kelly’s Heroes or The Dirty Dozen. So banish memories of recent disappointing comic-book champions (like The Green Lantern) and enjoy a rather old-fashioned hero.